What is it that makes you miserable? What binds you? What makes you suffer? How do you free yourself of your miseries? How do you bring yourself lasting happiness and freedom? The whole lot of philosophies, spiritual systems, and religions have evolved due to humans asking such questions.
The Buddha too dwelt on them. One straightforward explanation that he gave was: human misery came from three unwholesome roots—greed, hatred, and delusion. They are also called the three poisons in Buddhist traditions. Get rid of them, generate their antidotes, and be liberated. Easier said than done. So the Buddha had to work at great lengths to elaborate on them and encourage people to meditate so that they could learn the subtle art of overcoming these poisons.
In less technical terms, let’s call these poisons ‘likes’, ‘dislikes’, and ‘ignorance’. For what we like, we have greed. Some disturbing mental states sprout from this root: desire, longing, passion, lust, self-indulgence, running after money, power, fame, love, and what not. All these steal the peace of mind. They cripple our ability to see things clearly.
Likewise, for what we dislike, we have hatred. Again, there are disturbing mental states that emanate from this root: grudge, resentment, anger, wrath, vengeance, disgust, antagonism, and so on. These, too, steal the peace of mind and cripple our ability to see things clearly.
The third—ignorance—is our naive and distorted way of seeing things. It’s actually this root that gives rise to the other two. But the other two also reinforce it—they nourish in a backward flow. Our naivety and distorted views cause us to like and dislike things, people, food, situations, vacations, jobs, diseases, politicians, rock stars, and so on. We act accordingly, making our likes and dislikes stronger. This in turn blinds us and pushes us further from seeing things clearly, prodding us to react in a deluded way. It goes in a vicious circle—distorted mind magnifies our liking and disliking, which in turn further distorts our minds.
Actually, the first two, liking and disliking, are the two sides of the same coin. And the third, ignorance, does the flipping. When a coin is flipped, one of the two sides is bound to come up. When ignorance comes into play, liking or disliking is bound to happen. And conversely, as there are two sides, flipping becomes possible.
The more your mind is given to liking something, the more it is apt to disliking some other thing. We often love and hate the same person or thing. When your dog comes to sleep at your feet, you become happy and love it. One day, when it doesn’t do so, you become unhappy and hate it. You like your boss when she appreciates your work. The next day, you hate her because she appreciates somebody else’s work. The stronger you love something, the stronger your hate will be when things change slightly. This change, sometimes, can just be of your own mood!
So what’s the way out? How do we overcome these mental poisons? Well, it took 45 years for the Buddha, the fully enlightened one, to help people understand. Plenty for us to explore.